Four years ago, I joined Philadelphia’s electricians’ union. I wanted to be part of the team to turn this city into a beacon of sustainability. And we must start with our schools.
Many of Philadelphia’s public schools are falling apart. Most were built between 1950 and 1959. Some buildings have 95-degree classrooms in warmer months with no HVAC or ventilation. In cooler months, their boilers sometimes fail. Some schools have lead paint on the walls and lead pipes behind them. Last month, questions were raised about why Masterman, one of the city’s most lauded schools, had 60 areas of damaged asbestos, potentially exposing students and teachers to the cancer-causing substance. We already know of one Philly schoolteacher who has developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. It’s likely that as the years march on, more asbestos gets damaged, more lead is leached from the pipes, more students and teachers are left to deal with lifelong health problems.
The city’s response to our crumbling schools so far has been a box of Band-Aids. Throw some fans in a window. Fix the broken boiler after it explodes. Our schools are old, full of toxins, and their outdated low-efficiency systems are contributing to climate change.
I worked at a school three blocks away from my house, where union workers were hired to remove all the lights. A nonunion company was hired to strip the popcorn ceiling of asbestos, and then we put the same old fluorescent lights back up. A couple more dollars and we could have retrofitted LEDs and permanently cut the school’s electric bill. A little more and we could have electrified the whole building. If you’re going to send us in there, have us do the whole job.
The demise of our school buildings really hits home when I think about how robust our building trades unions are. We are trained, we are skilled, we don’t cut corners, and we pride ourselves on our work. Unions provide high-quality, good-paying jobs and safe working conditions.
Union workers built this city, and decades ago, union workers built these schools. But buildings, like anything, need to be maintained and updated.
Some put faith in billionaires, rocket ships, and robots, but I put my faith in my tools, my hands, and my union brothers and sisters. I put my faith in the workers of this city, and not only electricians — but also steamfitters, carpenters, laborers, insulators, welders, truck drivers, mechanics. It’ll take thousands of man-hours to bring our schools up to snuff — to remove the poisons, install modern heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient lighting, and increase efficiency by installing high-performance windows and insulation. There are 339 schools in the Philadelphia School District. You do the math on how many people that’ll keep in work with good wages, good insurance, and a guaranteed pension.
On July 15, Jamaal Bowman, representative of New York’s 16th Congressional District, introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act, a bill that would provide $1.4 trillion — roughly one-fifth of our defense budget — for climate-resiliency and decarbonization initiatives in K-12 public schools. Nationwide, it would create 1.3 million jobs. And upgrading every school across the country with energy-efficiency measures, electric heat pumps, and rooftop solar panels (wherever possible) could prevent 78 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution each year.
This legislation is currently being discussed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The urgency of this moment is all around us: crumbling schools, sick teachers, thousands out of work or underemployed. That’s why we must make sure this legislation makes it into Congress’ reconciliation bill. This is our opportunity to invest in this city. We can rebuild our schools. We can make Philadelphia families proud to send their kids into our buildings. Together, we can build a better Philadelphia.
Ash Fritzsche is a union electrician living and working in Philadelphia. She is a proud member of IBEW Local 98.